The Riverton golf roster lists Easton Paxton as a freshman.
That could appear to be a misprint, however, considering what the 14-year-old has dealt with both on and off the golf course in recent years.
On the golf course, Paxton has established himself as one of the best amateur players in the state. This summer he carded a 136 at the Buffalo Golf Club to win the U.S. Junior Amateur Qualifying Tournament for Wyoming for the second consecutive year. He also has competed against the top amateur players in the world at tournaments around the country and in Hawaii.
“I’ve seen some good golfers through the years,” Steve Johnson, the golf pro at the Riverton Country Club the past 19 years, said, “but nobody that compares to Easton, that’s for sure.”
Paxton enters this weekend’s Class 4A West Conference tournament in Riverton as the odd’s-on favorite to add to his medal collection. He has won three of the four high school tournaments he entered this fall and helped the Wolverines capture three team titles in the process.
While Paxton was having so much success on the golf course, he had to do so without one of his biggest supporters – his mother. Kara Paxton, 38, died July 17 after nearly a four-year battle with brain cancer.
“My mom’s death kind of opened my eyes that there is a big world out there, and golf doesn’t mean that much in the long run,” Paxton said. “It’s made me respect the game that much more, and it’s given me a different outlook on everything.”
Simply the best
Kara Paxton was more than a wife to Curt Paxton and a mother to three sons – Easton; Treyton, 13; and Parker, 8. She was the unofficial team mom for her son’s sports teams and was an active member of her church and in the Riverton community.
Even after she was diagnosed with brain cancer, Kara Paxton continued to remain upbeat and attended as many of her sons’ activities as possible. Her attitude left an indelible impression on her oldest son.
“I just remember how strong she was and how positive she was,” he said. “She never, ever complained about anything that she had to go through.
“I never once heard her say, ‘Why me?’ That really stood out most for me. So now, whether I’m doing a workout or practicing golf I never complain; I just keep going.”
Curt Paxton said that all three sons helped each other as well as him deal with the loss of Kara. As a result, he said the family has grown even closer.
“It starts with Easton, but with all three of the boys I’ve seen a lot of spiritual growth,” Curt said. “We talk a lot about God and we talk a lot about heaven, and it’s helped us become closer to God. I can see that in their actions.
“They are probably more mature than most kids their age just because of this life experience and the lessons taught to them by Kara through her battle. She was the epitome of a positive attitude and she never showed the negative side of having cancer. She was always upbeat.”
While the Paxtons were there for each other, they soon discovered that the rest of the Riverton community was more than willing to help however possible. Different organizations held fundraisers on Kara’s behalf, and people made sure that the family always had fresh-cooked meals and a clean house to come home to after Kara and Curt traveled to Arizona, where Kara underwent treatments for the cancer.
“It’s why we live in Wyoming and why we chose to live in Riverton is because we have so much support,” Curt said. “Everybody knows our situation, and everybody in this community showed so much compassion. All of the churches were helping our family in different ways and helped us in our time of need. This community has been amazing, and we’re very humbled by that.”
Kylan Schultz, also a freshman on the Riverton golf team and a member of Easton’s traveling basketball team, used money he raised from going to businesses in town to purchase warm-up jackets for the basketball team. The backs of the jackets were emblazoned with the words “Fight,” “Cure,” and “Hope.”
“I have the best family and friends ever,” Easton said. “They’ve helped me deal with everything, and they’ve helped me remember all the good and kept me from focusing on the bad.”
From the beginning
Golf has always come naturally to Easton Paxton, who first ventured out on the course with his dad when he was only 4 years old.
“I taught him the basic golf swing, and from the beginning, he hit the ball really pure,” Curt said. “He had a real God-given swing.”
While Johnson was impressed with Easton’s swing at such a young age, he was even more impressed with his mental attitude.
“Even when Easton was 5 years old, he had a drive,” Johnson said. “If I told him it would take 20 hours a day to get where he wanted to be, that’s what he would do. So much of his natural talent is in his head.”
Easton, who spends a majority of his free time at the Riverton Country Club, has always had an affinity for the game.
“Ever since I can remember, I’ve been playing golf,” he said. “I picked up on it pretty fast, and I just kept playing. The older I got the more I liked it.”
He started winning tournaments around the state when he was 9 and hasn’t stopped winning since.
The ‘It’ factor
Paxton has won a number of tournaments, but the one that stands out to Johnson is last year’s Wyoming State Junior Amateur at the Jackson Hole Golf and Tennis Club.
Playing in the final group, Paxton approaches the 490-yard, par-5 18th one stroke off the lead.
“Easton was one stroke back going into No. 18 and everybody was thinking that he was going to make a birdie and force a playoff,” Johnson said. “But he absolutely bombed a drive down the middle of the fairway. He just said, ’I’m going to make an eagle and win this thing.’ Then he aggressively drilled a putt in the center of the cup from 20 feet out to win [the tournament]. He loves to be in that position.
“People imagine themselves needing to make a putt to win the U.S. Open,” Johnson added, “but if they ever get put in that position, they’re [not going to make the putt]. But Easton truly thrives in that position. It puts him a level above as far as competitive nature.”
While Paxton is a competitor, he never lets that keep him from enjoying the game.
“His attitude is what impresses me the most,” Curt Paxton said. “When you watch him play, it’s obvious he loves the game, and I can never tell if he had a bad hole or a good hole.”
That even-keeled approach allows Easton Paxton to be in contention even when he might not be playing his best.
“The thing that stands out is not that Easton will go out and dominate an event, but that he’ll always be in contention,” Johnson said. “Easton is head and shoulders above his competitors as far as mental strength and physical fundamentals. He’s always going to be the one to beat.
“Whatever the “it” is, he has “it.” I’ve never worked with someone at that age where I thought, ‘He’s got it.’”
Not surprisingly, golf figures prominently in Easton Paxton’s future. While he still has three-plus years of high school remaining, Paxton has thought about playing the game he loves long-term.
“I think that I have some opportunities that if I take advantage of them, I could play at the level I want to someday,” he said. “Obviously, that level is the PGA Tour. And when I get over 50, it’s the Champions Tour. I think that will be a pretty cool process.”
It’s a process that started nearly 10 years ago. And it’s a process that has been strengthened by the recent death of his mother.
“It’s been a thrill to watch Easton grow and develop, not only with his golf game but through his maturity,” Curt Paxton said. “He wants to play golf for Kara. I told him that he needs to play golf because he loves to play golf, and that he honors Kara by how he conducts himself on the golf course.”
When Johnson talks about Easton Paxton, names like Jack Nicklaus and Greg Norman and Tiger Woods are mentioned.
“Easton loves the competition, and I think his mindset reminds me of what you hear about Tiger Woods when he was at a similar age,” Johnson said. “Don’t think I’m saying that Easton is the next Tiger Woods, but he has that mentality where he wants to have the pressure on him.
“He has a chance to be a very special player.”